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The Good and Bad of Instagram

by Michael Szul on tags: instagram, social media, aesthetics, images
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I mentioned recently that I took the time to remove applications like Twitter and LinkedIn from my phone in order to limit my impulsive interaction with the applications—the knee-jerk desire to scroll a feed instead of accomplish something of value. This isn't dissimilar to scrolling through list after list on Netflix only to turn the television off when you're done—beaten down by choice paralysis—only with social media apps, you're scrolling down and potentially clicking links (with a convenient built-in browser so you never have to leave the site) all to fill some small chunk of time as a natural distraction to limit boredom.

Drew Austin writes a newsletter on urban design (or whatever word you want to plug in to describe how society interacts through processes and architecture). It's a paid newsletter if you want the weekly essays, but Drew also puts out free emails weighing in at 3 paragraphs and a few link dumps. In a recent post, he linked to a Kyle Chakya post about ambient TV, but commented that TV was always pretty much ambient.

The Internet has become the new white noise in many respects. We turn it on for background noise and it never disappoints. It allows us to fill the boring moments with doom-scrolling and gossip. It provides an easy distraction.

It can also fill you with unnecessary anxiety.

Removing those applications from my phone was good training to not reach for my phone every time I was at a breakpoint, and after the initial FOMO anxiety dissipated, I didn't really miss the applications all that much—valuing communication over congestion.

I did keep Instagram on my phone.

Update: When I started this post, I still had Instagram on my phone. Since it's taken me several months to sit down and finish this writing, I've finally removed Instagram too.

Born in San Francisco, Instagram started as a Foursquare competitor named Burbn—created by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. Realizing the crowded market of location-based social networks, the founders eventually refocused on photo-sharing, rebranding as Instagram. Not necessarily born from the shadows of garage start-ups, Burbn/Instagram received early funding from money shops such as Andreessen Horowitz. The first Instagram post (a photo of South Beach Harbor) was uploaded by Krieger in July of 2010.

Instagram's success followed largely on the heels of its simplicity (single photo sharing), creativity (professional looking filters), and mobility. Instagram was a mobile-first application that shot to the top of both iPhone and Android application stores.

Instagram was the Facebook killer. A simple interface with easy interactions and a limit to the medium being presented: Photos.

About that "killer"… In the spring of 2012, Facebook, shelled out $1 billion for the company, while intending to keep it as an independently run group. The deal for Instagram closed right before Facebook's IPO, providing Facebook with an early boost.

Initially Instagram was all about the filters, but even as Facebook absorbed the fledgling company, the simple feed of flowing images offered value disconnected from a lot of the noise on Twitter and the Facebook news feed.

Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of bad.

The algorithmic adjustments have made the feed display out of order. I still don't get the value of stories outside of triggering FOMO in users. There also seems to be a one-to-one ratio of advertising to actual photos from accounts I'm following. Perhaps the most annoying: The discovery aspect of the search functionality is overly littered with semi-pornographic pictures.

But there is good to Instagram. If offers a visual storytelling aspect to sharing content that is devoid of 240 characters of dribbling nonsense of cancel culture arguments. It's less likely to surface political bubble content either that often drives a wedge through relationships or solidifies biases. And if it does have political content, it's likely in the form of a meme, so at least it forces the person to be creative (small wins?).

Instagram provides an outlet for creativity while forcing the narrative into a single picture with limited links where any description is the first comment in the photo post. Although enhancements have allowed for multiple photos, videos, reels (whatever they are), and other divergent "enhancements," in truth, the limiting factor of Instagram's functionality is what gives it greater value.

If you eliminate the Instagram Influencers from your feed, there's a way to aggregate a significantly high quality art feed, and the subtle simplicity of Instagram as a platform offers greater discoverability than something like Dribble. If anything Instagram creates a reduction in complexity making it easier to drive traffic to those other sites. Instagram might be the most effective tool for publicizing artwork, but at the same time, it might be the most effective and enjoyable consumption application for viewing quality artwork.

Stepping into the arena of pure anecdote, Instagram has been a proving ground for quality image sharing from journalist Adam Rowe. Rowe is best known for his 70's Sci-Fi Art Tumblr, but as Tumblr went from growing property to Internet niche once Yahoo! purchased and then ignored it, Rowe continued to pummel the Interwebz with Sci-Fi imaginings from the additional spheres of Twitter and Instagram. Of course, Instagram is the natural medium for such image sharing. For Rowe, it's an easy gateway drug for those that eventually sign-up for his newsletter—and sometimes even pay—getting extended analysis of Sci-Fi from an era of quality space opera and planetary romance.

Instagram has even become a tool for industries that you wouldn't expect to receive value.

As a child of the 80's I've been slowly returning not just to the cyberpunk roots of my interests, but also the quality and style of sound during that era. Most people my age seem to be doing the same, which has created a rise in retro synthwave music. Through various avenues of playlist searches, I ended up on YouTube listening to Astral Throb, which has quickly become my favorite "music channel" on a video streaming service.

Astral Throb is nothing more than a person doing music aggregration, but the beauty is that this sort of playlist curation makes music discovery easier for casual listeners like myself. Astral Throb is doing all the legwork for me, but at the same time, blending the music with cyberpunk-inspired visual imagery. This imagery makes its way onto Instagram. Astral Throb uses Instragram to promote curated sythwave and cyberpunk images, while directing followers to the YouTube playlists. At the same time, Astral Throb actually makes its money not so much on advertising, but on promoting its own store filled with desktop wallpaper, prints, and clothing apparel.

The anecdote of Astral Throb is that Instagram has become a powerful tool in building an integrated audio-visual service to cross-pollinate between other services based on themes, while providing easy curation, surfing, and openning up an avenue to generate revenue through quality, creative-driven add-ons.

Of course, Instagram being a free application (and owned by Facebook) means that you are the product. It collects your data to sell you advertising, and that advertising can be greatly intrusive. Maybe one day we'll finally move away from advertising-based web applications, but until then, you take the good with the bad, I guess.